A wildfire burns near Athens, Greece, on 23 July 2018. Photo: Costas Baltas / Reuters

By Niki Kitsantonis, Richard Pérez-Peña, and Russell Goldman
24 July 2018

ATHENS (The New York Times) – Fast-moving wildfires near Athens have killed at least 74 people, officials said on Tuesday, and have forced thousands of tourists and residents to flee in cars and buses, on foot, aboard boats and on makeshift rafts. In desperation, some people plunged into the Aegean waters and tried to swim to safety.

Gale-force winds topping 50 miles an hour have fanned a pair of fires that tore through seaside areas popular with travelers, leaving behind a trail of charred resorts, burned-out cars and smoldering farms, and wrapping the region in a pall of smoke. Officials said that at least 187 people were injured, including 23 children.

Many evacuation routes were blocked, and people who did manage to escape by road had to drive through choking smoke, sometimes with walls of flame leaping through trees just yards away. […]

Greece’s emergency services were stretched to capacity, as more than 600 firefighters and 250 fire engines were deployed to the sites of the two largest fires, in and around Rafina, about 15 miles east of Athens, and Kineta, about 30 miles west of the capital.

The country’s entire fleet of water-dropping aircraft was deployed on Monday, the military sent specially trained units for fire prevention patrols, and officials called on their partners in the European Union for help. […]

A firefighter working on Monday, 23 July 2018, to quell flames in Kineta, a coastal city west of Athens. Photo: Valerie Gache / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

In a 24-hour period ending Tuesday morning, 47 new fires broke out, though all but four were quickly extinguished, said Stavroula Maliri, a spokeswoman for the national fire service. Government officials and others speculated that at least some of the fires had been set deliberately.

Europe has sweltered through an unusually hot and dry summer, breaking temperature records and fueling significant fires in several countries, including Sweden and Britain.

In Greece, blazes have consumed entire towns, locals said, and officials warned that the death toll would rise as emergency workers cleared burned homes and cars, in which some evacuees had become trapped. […]

Trapped by flames at their summer home near Mati, Nikos Stavrindis and his wife, along with four friends, tried to swim to safety, but two of their group drowned, he told The Associated Press. A fishing boat rescued the survivors after about two hours in the water.

“It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” he said. “We ran to the sea. We had to swim out because of the smoke, but we couldn’t see where anything was.”

He said the group swam farther from shore to escape the smoke, but they were carried away by the wind and current, and became disoriented. “We didn’t all make it,” he said.

The president of the Hellenic Red Cross, Nikos Economopoulos, said that 26 of the dead had been found in a field near Mati, north of Rafina. Some were locked in an embrace, he told Greek state television.

“Mati doesn’t even exist as a settlement anymore,” a resident told Skai TV. “I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive.” […]

People watch a wildfire raging in Rafina, east of Athens, on 23 July 2018. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Wildfires are an annual occurrence in Greece, but a drought and a recent heat wave, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), have helped make this the country’s deadliest fire season in more than a decade. Sixty people were killed in a 2007 blaze that swept through the country’s Peloponnese region. [more]

In Greece, Wildfires Kill Dozens, Driving Some Into the Sea

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